Perhaps one of the most striking findings from the poll was that the vast majority of young people expressed hope in the future of the country, with particularly dramatic increases in that metric among young Black and Hispanic respondents. In 2017, just 18 percent of young Black respondents said they felt hopeful about the future of the country, compared with 72 percent this year.
“We see essentially a 180-degree pivot, politically as well as in fear and hopefulness,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Kennedy School Institute of Politics. The poll designers, who are Harvard undergraduates, said that may be because Black and Hispanic Americans were much more likely to be Biden supporters and felt a renewed sense of optimism after his election.
Previous research showed that young people voted at historic levels in the 2020 election, undermining the notion that they are unreliable or apathetic politically. In fact, the strong support for Biden from Black and Latino young people may have made states like Georgia and Arizona competitive, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Their support for progressive policies like police accountability, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and an assault weapons ban pushed Biden to the left.
Even so, Biden, long a moderate Democrat, got the highest approval ratings among voters in college in the 21-year history of the youth poll.
Young activists in Boston said the past year had rallied them politically, both because of the pandemic and because of mass protests in the wake George Floyd’s killing by police.
“The past year changed me in terms of larger scale thinking,” said Toiell Washington, the 23-year-old founder of Black Boston, an activist group. Washington said she hadn’t attended protests in the past week after the Derek Chauvin verdict, because she was thinking through next steps, and what comes after mass protests.
Yet while young people expressed optimism about the state of the country, many in the poll also said they were struggling with depression and anxiety. A full 51 percent said they had felt down, depressed, or hopeless several times in the last two weeks — more than double the percentage that said so in a 2019 Centers for Disease Control study of the same age group.
“These are very disturbing numbers, suggesting that truly millions of young Americans are experiencing unprecedented levels of psychological distress and unhappiness,” said Ellen Burstein, a Harvard undergraduate who helped design the poll. (Other new data backs that up — a recent global study of workplaces by Microsoft found that 60 percent of Gen Z workers said they are merely surviving or flat out struggling right now.)
The stress on young people this year has been widespread, touching nearly every aspect of life and affecting those even under the age of 18.
“Everything we tried putting aside, we’re no longer able to escape,” said Emily Menjivar, a 15-year-old on the Chelsea Youth Commission. Menjivar said the effect of staying home and being isolated from friends, without the distractions of classes or activities, took a heavy toll on her and her peers. “It’s very overwhelming,” she said.